One of the most famous musicians and composers to ever work in movies, Randy Newman has performed some of the most memorable songs appearing in movies over the past several decades: the iconic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from “Toy Story,” “I Love L.A.,” and “I Love to See You Smile” just to name a few. Also a composer, Newman has scored a host of films, including several Pixar flicks (all three “Toy Story” and both “Monsters, Inc.” movies, “Cars,” “A Bug’s Life”), as well as “The Natural,” “Maverick” and “Seabiscuit.”
A 16-time Oscar nominee, and two-time winner, Newman also has a lively career playing music not attached to our favorite blockbuster movies. Newman will play The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana, on Sunday, Nov. 23, and took some time to speak to The Film Yap about his music and his movies.
I’ve been listening to and reading some old interviews with you. In one of them, you discussed how you dislike writing. Can you talk a little about the songwriting process and what makes it difficult to get through?
I’m better about it now than I have been pretty much throughout my life. It’s just always difficult to go through until you do it. The deadlines would help, but it’s never something I’ve done willingly, for fun, certainly, or looked forward to doing, unless I was doing real well. I just never found it something I liked to do. It was something I would eventually have to do; I’d run out of money, or I’d be making another record. I’ve always found it difficult to commit myself to doing it because I don’t like to write, because writing’s not easy. I couldn’t get it through my head that that’s just the way it is. And I thought that it was particular to me for some reason, and maybe I should just find something else to do. You know, there’s a famous old saying that there’s nothing worse than writing but nothing better than having written something, so that’s the way it goes. And you know, whenever I read those articles, and see myself complaining about earning a living in something as generally privileged as that, it kind of makes me cringe.
Well, you have a screenwriting credit for “¡Three Amigos!” Can you tell me how that came about?
Lorne Michaels wanted me to write the song for the picture, and in order to do that, I wanted to be involved in the rest of things, and it kind of worked out well. Better and better as time’s gone on. It’s become kind of a cult picture.
Your work has a wide range of moods and themes. You have people like me who know you more from the movie stuff, and people who like your other music. When you’re performing live, do you ever sense the shock from people who are hearing your other work for the first time?
Yeah, yeah. It’s different for people who know me from the Disney stuff … the Pixar stuff, especially. It’s certainly not oriented toward children. I’ve been very lucky to be able to write stuff like that. It’s as close to middle of the road or close at all. What I usually write is very different for what would be considered to be … I hate to use the word “normal,” but I write songs that are mostly written as characters. Like the guy in “Short People,” it’s hardly me, but it’s a guy who’s sorta nuts. A lot of characters in my songs aren’t myself, which is kind of unusual in pop music, in popular songs. It’s usually “I, me,” or someone you identify with. I try to write like a short-story writer or novelist would, and it’s interesting to do that, but it’s unusual.
When you are performing someone else’s music, or hear other people perform yours, do you have a sense of ownership of the song? Do you feel like when you’re singing someone else’s song, do you feel like you have to perform it a certain way, or vice versa? Do you hear someone perform your song and think, “I don’t know … they just didn’t get it right”?
Oh, yes. All the time. Sometimes I’ll do it and hear it years later and think, “I don’t know what was bothering me so much,” and I think it’s OK. I did a thing with Barbra Streisand once on the piano for the song “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” It never was released, and I thought, “Well, I can understand it.” Then it was released last year in an album, and it was fine. And you hear that voice doing anything, it’s kind of remarkable. I remember being in the same room with it, and it was amazing. It’s really rare, a voice like that anywhere. However,I didn’t like her doing the song. But when I heard it 40 years later, it sounded good. You know, sometimes things are there, and it’s you who does the running around, like there are big pillars there and you run around, and it stays the same.
On that topic, you’ve obviously worked with some of the giants of the business and have done your songs. Is there someone you haven’t worked with who you just think, “I have to work with that person”?
Let me think … It might surprise you, I think. There’s someone I can learn something from like Kanye West … he’s good at what he does … very good. You know, I don’t know what she’s doing now, but I always wanted to work with Annie Lennox, who was with the Eurythmics. She made a big Christmas album once. I’m thinking … there’s plenty of others … Norah Jones is interesting … someone like Beyoncé, even Lady Gaga just to see if I could do it, learn how to do it … something different. I like to think I can write anything. EDM. Electronic dance music, if it’s music and not something I hate. I don’t know what I’d write it for, but it might come up for a picture sometime. There’s a lot of stuff that would interest me.
Going back to the Pixar stuff…you won the Oscars for “Toy Story 3” and “Monsters, Inc.” Is there something you did and thought was a home run, but got nothing for, or were you surprised by the attention for what did win?
The ones I won with … and I knew this might be the case because I was nominated 16 times without winning, but I didn’t think they were the best things I’d ever done for a picture. I thought “You’ve Got a Friend” was a better song, or more important to the picture, as was the song from “Toy Story 2” with Sarah MacLachlan. Even the song from “Babe: Pig in the City” that Peter Gabriel did, “That’ll Do,” and the James Taylor song from the “Cars” one, I thought they were all better, but I think they wanted to put me out of my misery or something. You know, it’s not a measure of merit necessarily. I’m very happy to get it, but it wasn’t my best work necessarily. And quite often that’s the case, actually.
You mentioned scoring and writing songs. Do you find one or other more rewarding?
The scoring because I get to work with an orchestra, which is about the best time I have in my life. The four or five days working with an orchestra is a great thrill for me. It’s an honor I’m always cognizant of that I’m working with some of the best musicians in the world, and I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have a stick in my hand and had written it. It’s a real honor to be able to do that. It’s certainly the most fun I have in music.
For the last question, I solicited questions from some friends, because obviously many of them are big fans of yours. So one person asked if you had softened your stance on short people having no reason to live.
(Laughs) Um … no. Especially after they caused me all the trouble they did. No, I haven’t really softened it a bit. You know, actually, it was like the one big hit I had in a way, and it was … I’d rather have made some quiet money rather than all that noise. You know, I’d be watching a football game and there it would be at halftime. People would be throwing eggs at my picture. You know, I couldn’t get away from it for awhile. It was making me lose my sense of humor. So yeah, I’m still taking a hard line on them.